By Leslie K. Nelson
“What are the typical saboteurs of genuine efforts to have cross-racial dialogues about race?”
That was the opening question posed to Phyllis and Eugene Unterschuetz, co-authors of a book, “Longing Stories in Racial Healing.” They were invited by Terry Howard, co-founder of Douglasville’s 26 Tiny Paint Brushes writers’ guild, to speak at our November 14 guild meeting.
The book is a memoir of the White couple’s immersive journey across the nation exploring the deep, murky, irritable waters of racism. Their mission was to have a candid and honest conversation about racism in a room mostly filled with people of color.
As in most settings when race or racism is on the table, my fellow writers sat still waiting in nervous anticipation. I thought, “what can I possibly learn from this couple that I do not already know?” And “Is this going to be a heart or logic conversation, and how will we respond?”
Here’s what “Natasha,” a White woman and new member of the guild said when I interviewed her for this article.
“I recently returned to America from living in China for the past 13 years. When I walked into the room knowing that the issue of race was on the agenda, I immediately felt welcomed and embraced and knew that I had entered a group with a strong circle of trust. Now I didn’t say anything during the discussion but listened to the authors share their experience in working and writing about healing racism. And I listened to the meeting participants, mostly African American, sharing their pain and struggles when dealing with racism and systematic oppression.”
I believe that speakers should get to know their audiences before attempting to educate or influence them. We quickly learned that Phyllis and Eugene had in fact been getting to know their audiences – Black and White – for years as they crossed the country in their RV conducting meetings.
They shared that they have seen examples of racism, and regrettably unconsciously “committed” acts racism themselves. However, they owned up to it, changed their behavior then wrote about it. Just as we all have a purpose in life, Phyllis and Eugene accepted theirs as having uncomfortable, transformative racial conversations.
Like any good facilitator, Terry Howard prodded the guild members with thought-provoking questions and “what if” scenarios throughout the meeting. One by one, we responded passionately about our direct and indirect experiences with overt and institutionalized racism.
For instance, a fascinating exchange and difference of opinion between two members about internalized oppression versus the Stockholm Syndrome as an explanation for how some people of color respond to racism was passionate and eye-opening.
Another person painstakingly reminded us of May 25, 2020 – when George Floyd was murdered in broad daylight on the streets of Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Now I didn’t hesitate to express my dismay about the absence of love, even as I remembered the night my adult son called me to ask if I would stay on the phone with him during a police traffic stop. It was clear that many members viewed the topic of love with mixed emotions while wrestling with an awareness of contradictory injustices.
Ignited by the topic of overt racism, one member, a musician and former teacher who was quiet for most of the meeting, suddenly opened up with passion about her experiences and treatment while growing up in Florida as an Indigenous person (Native American). Members laughed when her husband placed his hands on her shoulders to calm her down.
Although “Natasha” did not speak up during the meeting, during my interview with her, a particular comment resonated with her the most: racism is part of a larger belief system and there is a hierarchy of value in human life. This hierarchy is linked to economic gain. Slavery was justified through a belief system that assigns different values to human life based on the color of our skin. And this belief system created economic advantages for those at the top.
With what felt like a collective exhale, the meeting came to an end with a buzz in the room suggesting there was still so much more to say. It was obvious that we had only scratched the surface of a deeper more complex conversation.
Terry Howard’s last question to the group was timely – “Can we all agree that what we’re left with are baby steps forward and hope?” It was met with plenty of head nods.
Let me leave you with this truth and challenge. Good leaders continue to grow and learn from their experiences and others. For part two in this series, I am going to further challenge myself by asking others I interview with this question: “What should we, as individuals, consider doing next to further racial progress?” Stay tuned for their answers. In the meantime, I challenge the leader in you to ask yourself the same question.
© Leslie Nelson is an aspiring novelist who has authored many articles and unpublished short stories. She is a member of the “26 Tiny Paint Brushes” writers’ guild. She is also the Founder & CEO of PIVOTAL Connections, LLC, and a Maxwell Leadership Certified Team Member.